CANTON, May 28 – Earlier this year, Canton High senior Chelsea Mitchell was one of three high school athletes who filed a federal suit claiming that the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s (CIAC) policy to allow transgender students to compete in girls sports was a violation of Title IX, the landmark 1972 law that requires public schools to provide girls and boys with equitable sports opportunities.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights agrees. They released a finding that said that the CIAC and six school districts, including Canton, have violated Title IX by allowing transgender athletes to compete in girls track and field events over the last three years.
In February, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) sent a letter of impending enforcement action to the CIAC and the six schools that said the CIAC policy violates federal law. The OCR said the policy gives the transgender athletes an unfair advantage and has deprived athletes – including Mitchell — of opportunities to qualify, compete and win at the State Open and New England track and field championship events.
The CIAC and the six schools – Canton, Bloomfield, Cromwell, Danbury, Glastonbury and Hartford (Bulkeley) – could lose federal funding, according to the OCR’s letter. The OCR said that Canton, Glastonbury and Danbury violated Title IX regulations because they allowed their athletes to compete against transgender athletes.
However, there is a long way to go before this is resolved. “The document is not a ruling, it is a finding,” said Dan Barrett, Legal Director of the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “A finding is one early step in a long administrative process and a federal lawsuit is still ongoing.”
There are actually two cases in motion – one with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and a federal lawsuit that was filed in February by the Alliance Defending Freedom organization on behalf of Mitchell, Glastonbury High senior Selina Soule and Danbury High sophomore Alanna Smith.
The CIAC and the schools have until June 4 to come to agreement with the OCR, according to letter. In a statement on Thursday, the CIAC said that they are standing firm.
“Connecticut law is clear and students who identify as female are to be recognized as female for all purposes — including high school sports. To do otherwise would not only be discriminatory but would deprive high school students of the meaningful opportunity to participate in educational activities, including interscholastic sports, based on sex-stereotyping and prejudice sought to be prevented by Title IX and Connecticut state law,” CIAC Executive Director Glenn Lungarini said.
The CIAC revised their transgender policy in 2013 after the state of Connecticut passed a law (Public Act 11-15) in 2012 that expanded the scope of the state’s anti-discrimination law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression.
The OCR would need to hold an administrative hearing and then a judicial hearing before federal funding could be removed. An ACLU spokeswoman said that it is likely that the federal lawsuit will be decided before that is completed.
The dispute centers around transgender athletes Terry Miller of Bloomfield and Andraya Yearwood of Cromwell. Both were identified as males at birth. But now, they identify as female and CIAC rules allow athletes to compete based on the gender they identify as.
As a sophomore, Miller competed for Bulkeley in Hartford before transferring to Bloomfield. Yearwood has run at Cromwell for four years. Both will graduate from their respective high schools this June.
Cisgender athletes claim in the federal lawsuit that they are losing opportunities to compete at the State Open or the New England championships with Miller and Yearwood in the field. Cisgender are people that identify with their gender assigned at birth.
The top five finishers in each individual event at the CIAC class meet (LL, L, MM, M and S) qualify for the State Open with an allowance for athletes who met a certain time or distance standard. The top six finishers at the Open earn a spot at the New England championships.
According to the lawsuit, Miller and Yearwood have won 15 state championships in outdoor track and field and indoor track and field since 2017.
Last spring, Miller won her second straight State Open championship in the 200 meters in outdoor track and field. A week earlier, she swept the 100 and 200 meter races at the Class S championship, beating Mitchell and setting new Class S records in the two victories.
Mitchell won the 100 meter title at the State Open last spring with a new school record time of 11.67 seconds after Miller was disqualified in the finals for a false start. Yearwood was fourth in that race.
Mitchell went onto capture the 2019 New England championship in the 100, becoming the first Canton girl to capture a New England title. She was later named the girls track athlete of the year by the Connecticut High School Coaches Association.
The 2020 outdoor track season was cancelled this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the athletes did compete during the indoor track and field season in February. Mitchell won three titles at the Class S meet, including the 55 meters where she beat Miller for the first time by 0.02 of a second.
A week later, Mitchell won the 55 meters again with Miller finishing third. At the New England championship, Mitchell was second in the 55 meters with Miller finishing fifth.
Mitchell was pleased with the ruling by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
“I am extremely happy and relieved to learn that OCR found the CIAC and the school districts violated Title IX,” she said in a statement. It feels like we are finally headed in the right direction, and that we will be able to get justice for the countless girls along with myself that have faced discrimination for years. It is liberating to know that my voice, my story, my loss, has been heard; that those championships I lost mean something.”
Three times, Mitchell finished second behind Miller at Class S championship meets. In 2019, Mitchell finished third at the State Open indoor final in the 55 meters behind Miller and Yearwood.
Mitchell will be attending William and Mary where she plans to compete in college.
Christina Holcomb, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, said, “We’re encouraged that the Department of Education has officially clarified that allowing males to compete in the female category isn’t fair, destroys girls’ athletic opportunities, and clearly violates federal law. Males will always have inherent physical advantages over comparably talented and trained girls — that’s the reason we have girls’ sports in the first place.”
The ALCU is defending Miller and Yearwood in the federal lawsuit and the OCR complaint.
“This finding, which is not a ruling, is the latest attempt by the Trump administration to try to bully states into carrying out its bigoted anti-trans agenda. Trans girls are girls, and they should be treated as such, on the track and in all parts of their lives. Connecticut, including the quasi-government agency of the CIAC, can and should continue to protect trans youth from discrimination,” Barrett said.
With no final decision yet in the federal lawsuit or with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights process, the CIAC’s transgender policy remains in effect at this time.